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The Speed of Life
Running is faster than walking, driving faster than biking, and interstellar spacecraft faster then cars and planes. Blasting away from our little yellow star at over 38,000 miles per hour, Voyager 1, with its planetary sample of human music, its interstellar mix and mashup, is, at eleven miles a second, moving away from our sun faster than any other spacecraft known to man. Voyager 2 lags behind—only a couple of light minutes—actually a considerable amount, since that's about 25 times the distance from the Earth to the sun! Probably unheard yet in space, the Voyager record is gold-plated copper. Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is the farthest human-made object from Earth. A very pure sample of the isotope uranium-238 is electroplated upon the LP's cover. The thought is that aliens, perhaps far in the future, may be able to use the half-life of that isotope, which is 4.468 billion years, to figure out how long ago lived the organisms that sent it.
Coordinated with neurotransmitters and ion flows, the electrochemical impulses scientists link to thought (such as you reading this) travel at the rather staid rate of 20-30 meters per second. But even the fastest neural impulses, which can reach 200 miles per hour, travel three million times slower than the speed of electricity through a wire. That's almost (up to 90 percent) the speed of light. It seems incredible, then, that this physical basis of thought, itself way slower than electricity, loses—as does light itself—in a race with the mighty human imagination. Light itself—often identified with God—takes 8 minutes and 20 seconds to reach Earth from the surface of the Sun, some 93 million miles away. And yet you, in a fraction of a second, can imagine standing on its 10,000 degree Fahrenheit surface—ouch! In a twinkle of the eye we can flout time, surpass space.
The Voyager 1 record reached interstellar space in August 2012. Voyager 2 is still in the "heliosheath," the outermost suburbs of the sun where solar wind meets interstellar gas. But, even as these artifacts spread bits of our increasingly planetary culture into the depths of space, at home our mathematics- and music making-minds continue to toy with, to reconfigure, to work and play with what it means to be humans from Earth. The physicist John Wheeler (a friend of Einstein and teacher of Richard Feynman), argued that the “laws” of nature may not be fixed; rather we may inhabit a universe, looping into itself, where future observations and present reality, present observations and past physics, are subtly conjoined. The music we send into space—not just physically in spacecraft but electromagnetically from the internet and radio—may have cosmic repercussions. According to Wheeler, human consciousness shapes not only the present but the past as well. The past of course affects the present and future. But so may the present—what we do and the music we make—affect the past and future.
With that surreal, but quantum physics-supported idea in mind we present a new manifestation of the enduring power of the human imagination. The following is a unique mix made solely from the original contents of the interstellar Voyager record. It was composed by Tonio Sagan, the first grandchild of Carl Sagan. This first track synthesizes not only some of the musical selections on the Voyager record but also other sounds, such as the Morse code version of Per aspera ad astra—Latin for “Through hard times to the stars.” Subsequent tracks will continue the effort to reach out not only into space but across the generations, continuing the Voyage.
– Dorion Sagan
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